SXSW: Heading Into The Bubble

You have to take a deep breath before diving into Austin this time of year. No, I am not cracking wise about hygiene habits of the blogerati that descend on SXSW. I am talking simply about the masses of people. I describe SXSW as CES in a quarter of the space. Three years ago when we first hosted our OMMA@SXSW program I felt more like a football linesman than an emcee. Getting from the front of the vast room at the AT&T Center to the back was like navigating a scrimmage line. When it came to content devoted solely to marketing, advertising and media, we were just about the only content on the official program at the time.

In just a few years things have changed, even if the crowds have not abated. The ad world has truly discovered SXSW. Many agencies rent houses nearby, and the list of cocktail parties from the major and minor shops is endless. We at MediaPost have worked with SXSW to expand our offering to two days of discussions about how the various hot topics in media and tech will impact marketers: wearables, Internet of Things, Beacons, data-driven everything, massaging apps and more. We will also be asking the big questions -- like what is a brand anyway? Will content marketing eat advertising as we know it? Are we any closer to finding sustainable models for the media business?

Interestingly, many of the topics that are most engaging to SXSW denizens are irrelevant to most Americans. A survey of 1,023 U.S. adults by bargain and coupon finding app RetailMeNot (and Omnibus) found that only 19% of the general public even knows what the Internet of Things is. It gets worse for “Big Data” (16%) and “augmented reality” (15%). While many people (57%) know what wearable technology may be, only 7% recognize one of the ways this tech helps enhance lives through a more “quantified self.” Curiously, the most recognized trendy tech term surveyed as “3D Printing.” Of all the technology that has been hyped over the last couple of years, that is the one that would seem to have the least potential impact on consumer’s lives -- yet it is the sexiest. By the way, a good fifth of respondents didn’t have a clue about any of the surveyed terms.

As we head into the geekfest that is SXSW, it is good to remember that large swaths of the public are not ignorant of the trends so much as underwhelmed by a lot of them -- even bothered. The survey also found that 45% of us are bothered by others looking at their devices in our presence, and a quarter don’t even like people using devices when they are walking. Which is to say that the integration of personal technology with live human interaction and the shared social environment is far from settled. We remain, as a culture, conflicted over how much social space is being hijacked by personal technology

Academics talk about the “dual presence” that smartphones create -- where a person is there but not there. I take from these metrics how uneasy Americans are generally about the impact of personal tech is having on everyday social exchanges, and the tone of public space. And I doubt it is just a matter of the savvy versus the Luddite. I suspect that many of the people who are “bothered” by other people using devices in front of them are guilty of doing it themselves. We are not fully aware of our own gadget-focused behaviors and have yet to internalize how we resent them in others.

Later this week, as we contemplate the many ways in which marketers can embrace, exploit, leverage, co-opt or (more likely) chase these new technologies and their attendant behaviors, it is worth remembering this cultural unease. Marketers are often so busy chasing the trend that they miss the opportunities inherent in marketing to cultural ambivalence over the same trend.

Discussing all of these topics will be marketers from two dozen brands -- including 7-Eleven, Adidas, Hyundai, DISH, Discover, Lowe’s, Mazda, TD Bank, L’Oreal, Coca-Cola, Papa Johns, Kraft and more. For those of you in Austin later this week, the full agenda is here. And we will be streaming it live here

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